What are arm balances?
If we’ve been to enough yoga classes, or follow enough yoga profiles online, we’ll all be aware of Bakasana (picture below).
In fact there’s so many of them, it’s amazing what you’ll find out there. And in some classes, workshops and courses you’ll receive teaching on how to practice these postures.
Arm balances can be defined in many different ways. The way we see it, if you’re balancing using your hands and arms instead of your feet and legs, it’s an arm balance!
Why practice arm balances?
When starting arm balances, the first thing we might notice is that upper body strength needs a bit of development. However as we progress with different styles of arm balances, we find that we need core strength and strength in the hips and the legs just as much as in the arms and shoulders. They really are an all-over body workout!
When we start practicing arm balances, the first we usually try is something like Bakasana. Even this arm balance takes confidence! Your hands and arms are otherwise engaged with the floor, so if you fall it might hurt your face!
Over time, and with practice, we learn to build confidence in our bodies and our intuitive capabilities to hold the posture, and feel okay when we wobble a little. This does wonders for our confidence in the wisdom of our bodies!
Arm balances aren’t all about strength, our body requires some pliability too. We need to twist and stretch in all sorts of ways, then have the strength to get that shape up in the air, and then have the balance to hold it there too! Arm balances work just as much with our flexibility as they do with our strength – which leads us nicely in to the next reason for arm balances.
Arm balances do wonders for our sense of balance, it’s in the name! After getting comfortable in any balance, then we learn to breathe and spend time in the posture. Then we notice how the body can sway, ever so slightly, forwards, backwards or side to side. And how the hands and the supporting structures in our bodies become intelligent enough to adapt and change what they’re doing to help balance stay steady.
With practice, as the body becomes stronger, we’ll notice when the hips need to work a little harder, or when we want to squeeze our inner thighs just that smidge more, to help feel strong and balanced in the asana. In this way we can really start to connect with our bodies, connect with our sense of foundation and connect with our sense of ease whilst in a challenging position.
What if my wrists start to ache?
A strong arm balance practice will slowly strengthen the wrists. It’s important to proceed slowly at first. If you feel any aching or twinging in your wrists or hands then take a break for the day – you’ve practiced hard enough!
The more weight-bearing practice we do, the more our bones build density and our joints and surround muscle structures strengthen. So you really will see progress if you practice often, but also with sensitivity to the signals your body provides.
Hands are really important
It’s essential to strengthen and warm your wrists and hands if you plan to place your weight into them. Our wrists can handle our body weight – we evolved from tree-swinging monkeys – but most of us never really use that strength so it fades. Hands and wrists are more prone to injury if not taken care of. So where do you start? Our feet have arches, and these are maintained by the strength of muscles in each foot. We walk well, and our ankles, legs, etc are well when our arches work properly. There are muscles in our hands as well, and we can get the same effect. Muscles in the hand can lift weight through the centre of the palm and give support to the wrist – in Yoga, it’s called hasta bandha. Here’s a link to Ed’s video about Vasisthasana (side plank) that discusses and demonstrates hasta bandha. Take a look, and try to find the action in your own hand (side plank practice is optional!)
Finger activation – stand in front of a table or worktop with place both hands palms down and shoulder-width apart. Spread your fingers. Lift your fingers: feel muscles tense across and lift the centre of your palm, creating a suction cup. The outer circle of your palms will be firmly planted. Lean forward and shift your weight from your wrists to your top palm and your finger-tips.
Step-by-step approach to Bakasana
When starting out, it’s sometimes a good idea to begin in Malasana (Garland Pose). Picture below:
Start to press your knees into your elbows, and resist back against the knees with the elbows. This will help to switch on the inner thighs, hips and core.
From here separate your hands and land them in front of you, spread your palms and fingers to the floor. Keep the squeeze of the elbows and knees against each other.
Try lightly lifting one foot off the ground, land it down, and then lift the other. See how that feels for a few tries whilst maintaining effort through your inner thighs, hips and core.
If you feel confident, make sure not to jump, start to float both feet off of the floor. If they comfortably lift then bring the big toes together and lift the heels even closer towards your bum. Hold this for up to five rounds of breath. To come out, slowly land your feet and come back to Malasana.
If you feel confident practicing this way and would like more challenge, try starting with your knees tucked in to your armpits, instead of elbows against inner thighs. This provides more of a challenge throughout the core, hips and inner thighs to keep yourself balanced and up high.